“I Am”… thoughts at the transition from 2014-2015.

The ninth of Bill Gail’s ten questions in his new book is this: do we live in a special time?

He was asking of course, whether we are at a pivotal point in world history. It is tempting to see and write about history and events in such terms. One famous book along those lines is The Hinge of Fate, published in 1950 by Winston Churchill – volume 4 in his prodigious six-volume treatise The Second World War (now there was a memoir!). In volume 4, Churchill recounted events from January 1942-June 1943, a period he saw as registering a significant change in Allied fortunes. Prior to 1942, the Allies were reeling; after mid-1943, their victory was inevitable.

In a parallel way, most of us recognize several such hinge-points in our personal histories: a choice of career; commitment to a life partner; the birth of a child; a fork in the road at work; deciding where to live, an illness or setback, and so on. And the annual change of year such as today’s offers additional opportunities to take stock and reflect.

Fact is, our lives are really a continuous sequence of such hinge-points, whether we recognize them as such or not. We call this seamless succession the present, separating the past from the future.

How we view these three periods – past, present, and future – as we live out our years plays a big role in shaping our life story. It’s easy to regret the past and fear the future, but if we allow these negative memories and concerns to rule our present, it’s difficult to lay hold of what peace of mind life has to offer, and form a foundation from which we can find satisfaction and meaning in our work and circumstances.

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It has always been thus. Here’s an example:

4300 years ago, give-or-take, a Hebrew shepherd, isolated in the Midian desert, was regretting his past and fearing his future[1]. At 80 years of age, he’d had a lot of past to regret. Raised in the house of Pharaoh, he’d been frustrated by what he’d seen of the oppression of his Hebrew people by their Egyptian hosts. Once in a fit of anger he’d taken it upon himself to mete out rough justice to an Egyptian beating a fellow Hebrew. He’d killed the man, and had then been forced to flee for his life. He’d spent most of his adulthood in exile. And at the moment we find our shepherd, he’s having a terrifying conversation with God, who’d called to him from a burning bush. This God was sending him back to Egypt… and not just to live in the shadows. Instead, God was telling him to be bold, and visible, and to finish the job he’d wanted to do as a young man – end the oppression of his people and lead them out of Egypt. But the years of isolation and coming to terms with his earlier failings had changed Moses. They’d made him tentative, hesitant, doubtful.

He tried to talk God out of the idea, at one point even asking God His name. The answer surprised him. “My name,” God said, “is I am.[2]

As the remainder of his life unfolds, Moses is able to look back on this episode through life’s rearview mirror and recognize his conversation with God for the significant hinge-point it was. What he’d been unable to accomplish in the full vigor of his headstrong youth, he was able to achieve even as a washed-up old man – in God’s strength. The reality was that his best stretch lay ahead. Instead of having just a short time left on this earth, he had forty years to live and lead. At the end of his life and in history since, he’s been known and revered as the lawgiver, and as a man who stood up to God to plead his case – and won[3]! Talk about a comeback.

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Meteorologists, climatologists, oceanographers, emergency managers, social scientists, and other readers of this blog might be identifying with Moses and his regrets and doubts at this turning point in the calendar year. In addition to our personal past shortcomings and problematic individual futures, there are our corporate, community concerns. When we look to the past, we see that more than a century of effort has not attained anything like sustainable development, hazard-resilient communities, and pristine environment. Just as Moses’ earlier, youthful efforts to rouse his people had fallen on deaf ears, so it seems that few people heed our findings and warnings, on any threat. Our observations and science tell us that ahead the challenges that have thus far defeated us will be growing ever more severe.

As Earth scientists, social scientists, and practitioners of every stripe head to Phoenix for the AMS Annual Meeting, we might therefore do well to recall the words of the late Helen Mallicoat, a poet from nearby – Wickenberg, Arizona:

i amAnd then, with these words in mind, let’s live our lives the way we approach our profession. We don’t try to predict twenty years of weather at one stroke, and then collapse in frustration at our failure.

Instead, every day, we observe, predict, evaluate, improve, repeat.

We ought to be better than anyone else at doing life this same, ultimately productive way.

Happy New Year!

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[1] Exodus3-4 tells the story.

[2] Frequently given to us today as YHWH, or Yahweh; theologians have puzzled over and written about this name ever since.

[3] That account is recorded in Exodus 32.

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